A clear-eyed Quebec? Hardly

Lucien Bouchard’s ideas of the province’s future are whack

I just got back from a brief cross-Canada tour. Upon my return, something struck me about Montreal, which I believe applies generally to Quebec: people here are shamelessly preoccupied with enjoying life. It’s amazing how many families are out and about all day long. There’s an unmistakeable vibrancy to life in this province and it is derived from something special: we’re inefficient, and hooray for that!
Recently, Quebec has experienced “activism” by a coalition called Pour un Québec lucide, led by Lucien Bouchard. Although Quebeckers mostly think of Bouchard as the Bloc Québécois’s founder, this fossil should be remembered as Brian Mulroney’s righthand man and a pillar of the Progressive Conservative party.

In response to Quebec’s perceived financing problems, impending “rapid demographic decline,” rising health care costs, and Asian industrial competition, it’s no surprise that Lucien “the Booby” Bouchard proposes the following measures: increasing sales tax while reducing income tax, jacking up electricity rates, and unfreezing Quebec tuition. All this, of course, favours the common man, and paves the way to a bright, prosperous future for all. Right?
Little is lucid about these proposals. Let’s start with the idea of further diminishing our progressive income taxation model in favour of an increased sales tax. Everybody, rich and poor, purchases staples: food, clothing, shelter, and utilities. Whereas the rich, after satisfying their basic needs, have the liquidity to move on to additional, perhaps luxury, consumption, the poor do not. Consequently, low-income earners, currently paying lower income tax, would necessarily see their overall contribution increase. High earners would receive an income tax break, only seeing tax disadvantages commensurate with consumption above the basics.

Clearly, a shift from progressive income taxation to increased sales tax is effectively an inversion of progressive income taxation. The same principle applies to increasing electricity costs. An increase in Hydro-Québec’s rates, although virtually unnoticeable to the wealthy, would, percentage-wise, constitute a disproportionally large burden for low income earners. The same applies to tuition fees: no problem for the rich, big problem for the poor.

This isn’t just wrong headed: it is antithetical to the basic principles of wealth redistribution which we have fought, for ages, to embody in our taxation and social systems. However, in face of the economic predicaments we now face, which Booby and his cronies rightly point out, we must answer the question, “Where will the money come from?” According to Booby and co., we plebeians are “oblivious to the dangers that today threaten [our] future.” Is that so? Or are we increasingly aware (even if only in our guts) of the accelerating process of wealth sequestration?
It’s obvious where the real money is, and it’s not in the “average Marie-Josée’s” pocket. This March, for instance, the Royal Bank of Canada reported a $1.5-billion first-quarter profit. To contextualize, RBC could pay for almost every Canadian post-secondary student’s tuition with its first-quarter profits alone. In 2009, ninety per cent of RBC’s CEO’s $10.4-million salary could have paid for nearly fifty Quebec general practitioners, and he’d still have earned $1.04 million – not too shabby.

It’s almost four years ago to the day that Booby began his foray back into the Quebec political scene with the following statement: “We need to work more. We don’t work enough. We work less than Ontarians and infinitely less than the Americans.” Here he’s actually got it right. We’re lazy and inefficient – and good on us! When you propose to further screw me, the least I can do is play hooky when the sun’s shining. I’m proud to be part of Quebec’s obstinance. Sorry if that hurts your bottom line.